In introducing his conception of ‘content’ Bernard Berelson observed that:

“In the classic sentence, identifying the process of communication ‘who says what to whom, how, with what effect’ communication content is the what.” (Berelson in Marris and Thornham 1996: 201)

Content Analysis can be thought of as the systematic analysis of media content in order to examine a particular aspect or quality. Berelsen argued that it must be objective, systematic, quantitative and should limit itself to the “manifest content of the communication” rather dealing with implicit or hidden aspects of the message conveyed (Berelson in Marris and Thornham 1996: 202).

Berelson original work was conducted in the US in the 1940s. He looked at the role played by mass fiction in creating inter-group attitudes. His work involved analyzing this fiction into categories which arose out of his research hypothesis about inter-group identities. The specification and classification of the research material into these categories was essential for the development of Berelson work, and as he notes “content analysis stands and falls by its categories”.

In Berelson’s case he was interested in the representation of majority and minority identities, so he classified the fictional characters in the popular fiction he was researching as either ‘majority’ or ‘minority’. He was also interested to know what kind of role they were portrayed as playing in the story, so he also categorized these characters as either ‘major’ or ‘minor’. He was also concerned to know whether majority and minority characters were portrayed as ‘sympathy’ or ‘unsympathetic’.  It is important to note that the research material these categories were not directly ascertainable but the researcher was able to use indicators that he used to make a qualitative judgement in order to have quantitative data.

Subsequently, researchers working with content analysis have questioned some of the methodological and theoretical assumptions of content analysis. They have modified their methods to reflect these issues so that content analysis now explicitly recognizes that it is a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis. However, it usually involves measuring, counting, timing or other means of quantifying some or all of the findings. It often involves presenting data in tabular or numerical form. Content Analysis is a research method often favoured by researchers working from a materialist and/or sociological epistemology. Researchers working from other epistemological positions have challenged the underlying model of communication that supports this method. They have provided different models of meaning-making which will be reviewed in subsequent lectures.